On December 8, 2013, Rudy Gay played his last game for the Toronto Raptors. The team was 6-12 at the time and traded him for a compilation of role players. Since then the Raptors' regular season record has been 64-29.
Rudy Gay is a relatively talented player, playing for Team USA over the summer and actually performing reasonably well for his new team the Sacramento Kings. But he's the go-to example of the addition-by-subtraction concept that a struggling featured player can have on a team.
Certainly, even the most optimistic Pistons fans don't anticipate such a turnaround happening for the Pistons. But there is reason for hope.
In addition to finally being forced to have a rotation with the team's best players receiving the most minutes, the immediately upcoming schedule is quite favorable. The Pistons host the Pacers, then have a three-game road trip to Cleveland, Orlando, and New York before returning home to face the Kings.
Take away the Cavs from that group, and the rest have been a combined 9-31 in their past five games. Immediately after dumping Josh Smith, the Pistons have a strong chance to nearly double their win total. And perhaps avoiding the longest home losing streak in franchise history.
After that the schedule gets tougher, but thanks to the weakness of the Eastern Conference the team could still be in spitting distance of the eight seed.
The Brooklyn Nets, who have recently put their entire roster on the trading block, are currently sitting at eighth in the conference. The Boston Celtics are ninth, and they just traded away their franchise player presumably to enter into rebuilding mode.
Even the seven seed Miami Heat could be bound for a huge drop. With Chris Bosh out indefinitely with a calf injury, Dwyane Wade's knees acting up, and Josh McRoberts out for the season, it's basically the Mario Chalmers and Luol Deng show.
In all likelihood, three pretty bad teams are probably going to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. It's on pace to be the worst in 20 years. As of today, 35 wins would sneak past the current pace of the Nets – and that seems aggressive considering the number of teams looking to get worse.
For the Pistons to get to the 35-win mark, they'd have to go 30-24 for the remainder of the season. But keep in mind that Josh Smith was far worse for the Pistons than Rudy Gay ever was for the Raptors. Just take a look at Smith's on court/off court numbers from Basketball Reference.
|On − Off||66%||-0.043||-2.3||-6.2||-5.6||11.5||0.1||3.8||-0.4||4.5||-9.7|
|On − Off||66%||-0.007||6.2||2.3||5.6||-3.7||-0.3||0.6||4||2.5|
|On − Off||66%||-0.037||-8.6||-8.6||-11.2||11.6||0.1||3.8||-0.3||0.5||-12.3|
With 66 percent of the season still remaining to be played, maybe – just maybe – the Pistons can be one of those teams that are playing in late April.
Maybe it's the Kool-Aid talking, but I'm going to make the claim that they pull it off.